On October 30th, US secretary of defence Jim Mattis and secretary of state Mike Pompeo called on all sides in the war in Yemen to agree a ceasefire within 30 days.
Two factors appear to have prompted this apparent shift in US policy from unstinting support for Saudi Arabia to a more critical stance. The first is the horrific murder in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist. The second is the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, greatly exacerbated by more than three years of war, which many fear may result imminently in the worst famine of the past 100 years.
The two are interlinked. Ultimate responsibility for the murder of Khashoggi is being laid on Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. As minister for defence in March 2015, it was bin Salman who launched Saudi involvement in the conflict in neighbouring Yemen. However, while the renewed scrutiny of the crown prince appears to have motivated the about-turn by the US, it is clear that the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen should have provoked international intervention to stop the war much sooner than this.
The roots of the conflict in Yemen lie in the failure of the transitional process that took place in the country after the overthrow of long-time president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the country from its formation in 1990 to late 2011. Saleh was a classic Arab autocrat who ruled over the impoverished nation through a combination of co-optation and repression.
His regime depended on external sponsorship and a limited oil sector through which he maintained a complex network of patronage and clientelist relationships. However, Saleh drew increasing opposition, in particular from regional actors in both the north and south of the country.
When the wave of popular mobilisation that challenged the established order across the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011 reached Yemen, the protesters who gathered in their tens of thousands to voice their opposition to the regime were quickly joined by supporters of the Hirak movement, which sought greater autonomy, or even outright independence, for some of Yemen's southern governorates, as well as by members of the Houthi movement in the north.
The Houthi movement emerged in the Saada province, near the border with Saudi Arabia, in the early years of the 20th century. Between 2004 and 2010, Saada was the site of a conflict between members of a Shia Zaydi revivalist group, al-Shabab al-Muminin (the Believing Youth), and the regime, which resulted in thousands of casualties and significant destruction.
The group was established in the 1990s and quickly became associated with Hussain al-Houthi. Members of the Houthi family claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and the family purports to defend Shia Zaydi identity from dilution in a wider Sunni Islamic identity. Zaydis constitute a branch of Shia Islam significantly different from the version practised in Iran and comprise between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of the population of Yemen.
The Houthi movement was also motivated by what was seen as economic discrimination against the province of Saada, as well as the regime’s tolerance of Saudi-inspired anti-Shia agitation in the north of the country.
The conflict deepened an already serious humanitarian crisis in a country which, before the conflict began, was already the poorest in the Arab world
By the spring of 2011, it was becoming clear that the Saleh regime could not survive a combination of mass protest, regional challenge and the defection of key elites. At this juncture, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia, intervened, with the support of the United Nations and the international community more broadly.
The GCC proposed an initiative which envisaged the handover of power by Saleh to his deputy, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the formation of a powersharing government, and the inauguration of a National Dialogue to address Yemen’s deep-seated political problems.
However, as president, Hadi presided over an increasingly dysfunctional transitional process in the course of which key actors withdrew their support while ordinary Yemenis grew increasingly disenchanted with the deterioration in economic conditions.
All the while, the battle-hardened forces of the Houthi movement secured their control over Saada and moved southwards. In September 2014, using protests against a cut in fuel subsidies as a pretext, the Houthis seized control of Sanaa, the country's capital. By February of the following year, Hadi had fled to Aden in the south and in March 2015, Saudi Arabia intervened once more, leading a military intervention which dramatically escalated the conflict.
The coalition includes a number of other Arab states, the most significant of which is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The US, the UK and France also supported the Saudi-led intervention, which has as its core objectives the defeat of the Houthi movement, which it believes to be sponsored by Iran, and the restoration of al-Hadi to power.
The Saudi-led bombing campaign has had some effect, but has largely served to terrorise civilians and contribute to a worsening humanitarian situation in the country. However, Houthi forces and their allies were forced back from Aden and much of the surrounding governorates by southern militias backed by the UAE.
By 2017, the country had effectively become fragmented into a number of zones of control. Houthi forces controlled the northwest; UAE-backed forces became the most important security actors in the southern governorates; in the northern-central governorates and in northern Hadramawt to the east, military and security actors associated with the main Islamist opposition party, Islah, performed most security and military functions.
The conflict deepened an already serious humanitarian crisis in a country which, before the conflict began, was already the poorest in the Arab world and facing the exhaustion not only of its oil reserves but also of its water.
In January 2017, the UN confirmed that the total number of deaths in Yemen had surpassed 10,000 (although some sources suggest that the true figure may be closer to 50,000, given the inaccessibility of much of the country), of whom most were civilians and 1,120 were children. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition were responsible for more than two-thirds of civilian deaths.
Houthi forces were also accused of responsibility for mass civilian casualties, particularly during the siege of Taiz, the country’s third largest city. By March 2018, more than two million people were internally displaced, with another 280,000 seeking asylum in neighbouring countries.
According to the UN, 22.2 million (75 per cent of the estimated population) people in Yemen are in need of some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance; at least 17.8 million are food insecure.
In recent weeks, it has been suggested that 14 million people are now at risk in what is being forecast as the world's most lethal famine for 100 years. Yet, as Peter Salisbury, one of the most respected commentators on Yemen, stated recently in Washington, any such famine "was absolutely predictable and preventable".
The focus now turns to whether or not it is possible to secure a ceasefire in order to allow for essential humanitarian assistance to reach the population. Similar initiatives to date have foundered.
In September 2018, the newly-appointed UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, tried to revive diplomacy by attempting to set up "pre-talks" in order to get Hadi's government and the Houthi rebels to sign up to a formal negotiation process.
It was believed that the gap between the two sides was too great to allow for direct talks to begin without prior agreement on a framework for negotiations. Fundamental difficulties persisted. From the perspective of Hadi's government, no concession needed to be made since UN Security Council Resolution 2216 of April 2015 called on the Houthis to lay down their arms so that Hadi, "the legitimate president", could return to Sanaa and oversee the completion of the transitional process.
On the other hand, the Houthis claim that their 2015 coup was a people’s revolution and that they were fighting not against the Hadi government but against the Saudis, Emiratis, and violent jihadists. The UN initiative stalled when the Houthi delegation failed to show up in Geneva for the talks.
The intervention by Mattis and Pompeo at the end of October has revived pressure for a ceasefire. However, that pressure is having counter-productive and potentially disastrous effect as forces from the Saudi-led coalition escalate their efforts to regain control of the Red Sea port of Hodeidah from the Houthis, in advance of any cessation of hostilities.
Hodeidah, although blockaded by the coalition for the last three years, is the entry point for most commercial imports and aid supplies in a country that is overwhelmingly dependent on support from abroad. In the meantime, Sweden has offered to host talks between the warring parties but no concrete arrangements have been agreed to date.
Some suspect that ceasefire talk emanating from the US represents no more than a token effort to demonstrate that it is placing pressure on Saudi Arabia following the gruesome murder of Khashoggi rather than a serious effort to resolve the conflict. Yet, the potentially horrific consequences of failure to secure a ceasefire and move towards meaningful negotiations on the country’s future are close to unthinkable for the people of Yemen.
Vincent Durac is associate professor in Middle East politics at University College Dublin